Examining The Ambassador Effect
Animal advocates are sometimes baffled by people who love their pets but eat and exploit other animals. Can’t they see the incongruity between bonding with and caring for some non-human animals while excluding others completely from their sphere of moral concern? Well, advocates, have no fear — “pet ambassadors” are here! These feline, canine, equine, and aquiline companions embedded in households around the world are wielding the weapon of cognitive dissonance for the benefit of all animalkind.
Past studies have explored the idea of companion animals as ambassadors, questioning whether learning to care about them can influence people to care about other animals too. In this study published in Anthrozöos, researchers surveyed 376 Portuguese individuals to investigate the “pets as ambassadors” effect.
Seeking to provide a detailed picture of the ways in which companion animals influence our impressions of and attitudes toward other non-human animals, investigators created four groups of animals: Pets, Farmed Animals, Predators, and Pests. They grouped human attitudes toward animals into attributions (traits humans ascribe to them) such as the ability to think and feel, similarity to humans, edibility, harmfulness, and cuteness; and emotional impressions such as acceptability of killing for human consumption, feelings of care, feelings of excitement, and feelings of familiarity. Participants were shown pictures of companion animals (dogs, cats, and guinea pigs), farmed animals (pigs, cows, and sheep), predators (tigers, bears, and lions), and “pests” (cockroaches, spiders and ticks) and asked to rate the animals on scales of the various attributions and emotional impressions. Participant demographics were not a major focus of the study, but researchers did note that women showed a greater rate of attachment to companion animals, and that both women and meat-avoiders showed greater moral concern and less speciesism than the sample as a whole.
The results of the study were mixed, but encouraging. The study found that the category of animal that benefits the most from the guardian/companion bond is, unsurprisingly, companion animals. Participants who had learned to love a companion animal tended to believe that such species commonly have the ability to think and feel and are inedible, harmless, and cute. Participants felt it was unacceptable to kill these types of animals for human consumption and experienced feelings of care, excitement, and familiarity toward them.
Wild predator species and species of animals that are farmed were also found to benefit from the human-companion bond. Participants with a strong companion bond were more likely to feel that predators and farmed animals are inedible and cute than their non-pet-bonded counterparts. They also showed increased feelings of care and excitement toward these categories of animals, and found it less acceptable to kill them for human consumption. They credited predators with the ability to think, and felt a higher sense of familiarity with farmed animals.
Even “pests,” species of animals typically associated with disease or danger to humans, were shown to benefit modestly from human-companion bonding. Participants who had a close bond with a companion animal had an increased belief in insects’ ability to feel, and found them inedible and unacceptable to kill for human consumption. Not a huge win for the cockroaches, spiders, and ticks, but for species accustomed to being stomped on, squished, and swept away, every little bit of moral concern helps.
This study is limited in its broad applicability, as its participants were all of the same nationality. It would be interesting to replicate elsewhere and see if the same findings hold across national and cultural divides. It should also be noted that the study report failed to address the potential reverse causality. That is, it may be not so much that a bond with a companion animals causes a person to care more for animals, but rather that people who care about animals form closer bonds with their companion animals.
Going forward, it’s reasonable to assume that many people will continue to treasure some animals and trash others. The responsibility to pull off a mass awakening to transspecies empathy is too much to put on the shoulders of our feathered and furry family members. Nevertheless, every day, in small ways, our companion animals are nudging us to notice that they, and all animals, have more in common with us than we may have realized.